Friday, November 18, 2011

The Toilet of Tomorrow

Western toilet with lid up
I am obsessed with toilets, clean drinking water, and the infrastructure needed to make it all work. (Search the word "toilet" on my blog or read this earlier post about the Lifesaver bottle, if you don't believe me.)

So today's Science Friday on NPR was perfect. I only caught part of it while in the car, but I can see they've already got three short videos posted, and I imagine the audio will follow.

The guests were Frank Rijsberma from the Gates Foundation, which since July has been funding research on toilets and their infrastructure; Rose George, who wrote the book The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters; South Florida University engineering professor Daniel Yeh; and Jim McHale, head of engineering for American Standard.

Here are some facts:
  • Two-thirds of humanity uses latrines or less (ahem) formal methods. Why?
  • Because it costs $1,000 per person to install and maintain the types of sewers used today in the West. (The toilets are less of a cost problem than the sewer and treatment systems.)
  • 80 percent of human waste currently goes into rivers and streams, resulting in disease -- causing half of the hospitalizations in developing countries.
The challenge isn't just to remove human waste safely and with as few resources as possible -- it's also to stop thinking of it as waste in the first place and turn it into something useful, like fuel or fertilizer. Westerners could use some help with that, too! Yeh's process, which is shown in one of the videos on the Science Friday site, looks pretty interesting.

The Gates Foundation tomorrow will announce another $48 million in grants to fund research. So far their Reinvent the Toilet challenge has furthered work on anaerobic micro-digesters (turn the waste into methane fuel), algae-based treatment, a range of other small-scale treatment technologies, and a bunch of ways to collect waste safely and cheaply for more centralized processing. The PDF Fact Sheets describing the projects underway are super-fun to read, with lots of references to "fecal sludge stabilization" and "conversion of human excreta to energy and biochar."

It's a fertile area of research (sorry about that) and the SciFri segment is definitely worth a listen.

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